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As I mentioned in some of my recent Vetstreet articles, the key to creating a happy home for your feline friend is to recognize and understand the essential “catness” of
cats. We’ve discussed how cats need comfort, food, security and safety, and now it’s time to discuss how they need to scratch and play.
Once a cat’s basic resource needs are met, we can move on to providing safe ways to meet her claw care and activity needs with a minimum amount of stress for you. Scratching and climbing are part of the essence, or “telos” (remember that word from my previous articles?), of being a cat. Scratching also conditions and sharpens your cat's claws, which are her primary eating utensils and protective weapons, by removing old layers of the nails. Since your cat wants and needs to scratch, be sure to provide a variety of scratching posts and then teach her to use them. Until the cat can be trusted not to scratch and claw furniture, she should not be allowed unsupervised access to the house. If she has a single favorite (but inappropriate) scratching site, this may be temporarily protected by covering it with some netting or loosely woven fabric, since most cats do not like to snag their claws.
Giving your cat something safe to scratch will help ensure that she can "do her thing" without damaging your things. Try to choose scratching objects that are similar in texture and position (flat or upright) to the cat’s initial scratching targets. If your cat stretches up to scratch, provide something that is about the same height (cats often stretch and scratch after resting, so scratching objects near resting areas often get used). Put the object close to where you’ve seen your cat scratch, and be sure it is secure so she won’t be startled by it moving unexpectedly. Praising her profusely when you see her use it will let her know that this is hers to use. If you don’t already know how, learn how to clip your cat’s claws (it’s easy!), and do it regularly.
Providing places to climb and look out windows also is important in keeping indoor cats healthy and happy. Cats prefer to “look down” on their surroundings; it adds to their sense of safety.
If your cat scratches or climbs on something you don’t want her to, she is showing you that you haven’t helped her understand what is and is not OK to use. One of the most important things to understand about cats is that they do not respond to force. Force is a form of social communication that more independent species like cats don’t understand. So while force may mean “stop that!” to us, a cat may feel and act as if her life is being threatened! Reprimands only work if you catch your cat "in the act." Punishment that follows an action by more than a few seconds won’t stop her from doing it again and may even cause her to be afraid of you or the surroundings. It may even cause her to try to defend herself — those teeth and claws are there for a reason!
If you do catch your cat making a mistake, rather than trying to punish her, it is better for both of you to create a distraction by making a loud noise or by throwing something (not at the cat!) that will attract her attention away from the object — but not toward you. If your cat associates the distraction as coming from you, she'll just learn to scratch when you're not around. As with all honored guests, cats do respond to praise and to distraction when they make a "mistake." As soon as your cat is distracted, you can take her to a location where her behavior is OK — and then praise her for doing it there.
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